Friday, January 30, 2009

"The Tortilla Curtain"

The Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2007)

If you want to start an argument, ask your neighbors how they feel about illegal immigration, one of the most perplexing challenges facing our nation. T. C. Boyle took on this topic, before it became headline news, and wrote an insightful, poignant, and thought-provoking novel as a way of understanding the depth and breadth of the problem in very personal terms. The Tortilla Curtain is a work of fiction, but it evokes powerful and conflicting feelings and opinions; and that is the point.

President Bill Clinton, in an address to a joint session of Congress on January 25, 1995, stated that "[a]ll Americans...are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.... We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it." So how do we stop it? What makes one immigrant welcome and another not? What do we do about children born in this country to illegal immigrant parents? Is it right to deny education and health care to our fellow human beings just because they lack proper documentation? Are laws more important than humanity? What might be the long-term consequences of decisions we make today? There are no easy answers.

While illegal immigration is a global problem, The Tortilla Curtain is about how individuals are hurt by the existing situation. Mr. Boyle tells the story of two families whose lives inadvertently become entangled as a result of a traffic accident in the suburbs of Los Angeles. The Mossbachers are affluent, cultured, politically liberal, white Americans. Delaney is an environmental writer and stay-at-home father. Kyra is a very successful real estate agent. The Rincóns, América and Cándido, have recently arrived from Mexico with no passports and no money. América is pregnant and the couple are homeless. After enduring a harrowing journey across the Rio Grande, they dream of a home of their own in the country that their child will be a legal citizen of – if they can avoid deportation. The Rincóns hide out in a primitive camp several miles from the main road, in the wilderness adjacent to the Mossbacher’s community. Every morning, Cándido walks to the place where day laborers congregate, hoping to be picked but having poor luck. In the evening, Cándido takes care to stay out of sight before running across the road to the path back to camp. On the day in question, he sprints just as Delaney rounds a curve and is thrown several yards by the impact. Recognizing that Cándido is one of the hundreds of illegal aliens in the area and assuming he will want to avoid legal trouble, Delaney gives him a $20 bill and drives away.

Meanwhile, back at the Rincón’s camp América worries frantically while her husband is missing, and when she finds him he is barely clinging to life. She emerges from hiding in order to find work and suffers harassment, abuse, and assaults by employers and other immigrants alike. Cándido is humiliated that his wife succeeds in finding work when he has failed and that she is now the breadwinner while he is an invalid. He eventually recovers from his physical injuries, but his pride is forever broken.

Delaney maintains his belief that he is a “good liberal” by opposing a movement in their exclusive community to erect a security fence to keep the criminal element (illegal immigrants) out. Delaney and Kyra love that their property backs to wilderness until a coyote kills one of their dogs. This provides the cover the Mossbachers need to join their openly conservative neighbors in erecting the fence. When the fence proves useless, the community then builds a wall around the fence. The wall, like the fence, is no match for coyotes or criminals and succeeds only in shutting out the natural beauty of the setting. No one on the inside feels safer; instead they all become more fearful and Delaney is driven mad by his inner conflicts.

Mr. Boyle uses his characters to bring to life some of the complexities of the illegal immigration debate, and in the end they teach a lesson in humanity. A wild fire and a flood reduce the Mossbachers and their neighbors to homelessness, transforming everyone. When Delaney and Cándido meet in the midst of the cataclysm, Cándido must decide whether to forgive Delaney for the wrongs he has committed, and save him, or let him die. It is a deeply moving conclusion to an intellectually and emotionally challenging story.

Not only is The Tortilla Curtain an important book because of the timely subject matter, it is also a much-studied work of literature. Mr. Boyle uses symbolism and satire to illustrate the dangers of taking a simplistic approach to the problem of illegal immigration. Coyotes easily circumvent the fence and wall around the Mossbachers’ community just as stealthily as “coyotes”, border-crossing guides, lead Mexicans into the United States under cover of darkness. Mr. Boyle pokes fun at extremists on all sides of the debate and succeeds in reframing the reader’s thinking: no matter what your view of illegal immigration, this book will challenge it.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, of the 1 million plus people who enter this country annually, the vast majority do so legally and most illegal immigrants are here on expired visas; in other words they had the means to purchase airline tickets. This puts into question the widely held belief that teeming masses are flooding our borders and draining our economy. While his novel is more philosophical than political and does not reflect a bias, Mr. Boyle received criticism and hate-mail from many people who would like illegal immigration to go away. The problem with wishing that every illegal immigrant would pack up and return to his or her homeland is that our economy depends on them. Many illegal immigrants are productive members of society and successful businesspeople. Moreover, the availability of workers who do not – and dare not – demand minimum wage is an important factor in keeping our economy strong. If American farmers had to pay minimum wage to every field hand, inflation would ruin us. If all these field hands were to disappear, we would starve. Those are the dirty little secrets that nobody wants to acknowledge. Whether our nation will ever have a realistic and enforceable immigration policy remains to be seen. Until that happens we should all become informed of the facts rather allow ourselves to be swayed by demagoguery.

It is important to remember that the notion of citizenship in this country came from immigrants who pushed the Native Americans out so that they could lay claim to and settle this vast continent. Two hundred plus years and many waves of immigrants later, our nation is in what appears to be an identity crisis fueled by economic anxiety and fears of terrorism. If we want to stop illegal immigration, we need to understand why people are willing to risk their lives and everything they own to find a way across our borders. It also requires that we acknowledge that immigrants – illegal and otherwise – are important contributors to our gross national product. This means we must look beyond our resentments and fears and consider what we would do if life in our own country became intolerable. Where would we go? And who would welcome us?

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